Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

After two years without, Cambodians prepare Khmer New Year celebrations

Political analyst Seng Sary speaking at an event. Photo taken from his Facebook.
University students playing a traditional game to celebrate Khmer New Year, which officially begins start in mid-April. Photo taken April 8, 2022. CamboJA/Pring Samrang

With celebrations already mounting around the country, Cambodians are showing their eagerness to celebrate the Khmer New Year after a two-year break due to the novel coronavirus.

However, some told CamboJA they also have their concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19 during the festival. Others said they’ll be closely watching their budgets after the pandemic wreaked financial hardship on the kingdom.

Pov Pheakdey, a resident of the capital’s Stung Meanchey commune – which was classified as a red zone during the 2021 lockdowns – said she was happy the government decided to resume Khmer New Year celebrations this year.

“In terms of feelings, I am excited because people have been stressed and bored for more than two years since the COVID-19 epidemic because they are overthinking; Their business is difficult, income is low, and expenses are high,” Pheakdey said. “Some people are burdened by their job, while others are plagued by bank loans. When he [prime minister] reopens, though, people will be able to travel to see relatives and reduce some stress.”

At the same time, she said she’s not without her own financial stressors. With the rising price of gasoline and other basic goods, Pheakdey said her family needs to consider how much money they can spend on tourism – even if it does relieve some of the stress of the past two years.

She’s also concerned about the spread of COVID-19 infections after Khmer New Year.

“That problem (COVID-19) is unavoidable, but as citizens, we must understand it because we have lived with COVID for two years. We must all protect ourselves,” Pheakdey said, urging others to remember public health considerations such as social distancing and masking.

Still, even though she says her family has no big plans for this year’s Sangkran, Pheakdey said she’s ready to receive the new angel, which legend says will come to Cambodia for the new year.

Workers decorate a tiger made from bamboo at Wat Phnom. The tiger is the zodiac animal for this year. Photo taken April 8, 2022. CamboJA/Pring Samrang

Other Cambodians expressed to CamboJA similar feelings of cautious excitement.

Thou Vun, 55, a construction worker for more than seven years, said he was grateful and appreciative to celebrate the Khmer New Year, as he had not visited his homeland in more than two years due to complications of the COVID-19 era.

“They (the government) wouldn’t allow me to go home at the time, so I had to work as usual,” Vun said of past holiday seasons. “Because we haven’t seen each other in over two years, I’m overjoyed to be reunited with my relatives, and I can also go to the pagoda to offer food to the monks as usual.”

Vun said money is not a big challenge for him when visiting relatives in his hometown. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 more than two years ago, he said, his salary has been paid every month, allowing him to go home relatively easily. Much like Pheakdey, he urged his fellow Cambodians to protect themselves from the spread of the virus.

“We must be careful to protect [ourselves] and should advise our nieces and nephews to be protective, to wear masks, as well as to wash their hands regularly,” he said.

Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that Cambodian citizens could celebrate Khmer New Year 2022 at the March 31 inauguration ceremony of the Choam Chao flyover.

The Ministry of Health has reiterated guidelines to facilitate the national reopening while preventing the spread of COVID-19  with the “3 Don’ts and 3 Dos”.

These guidelines include encouraging the use of rapid tests for suspected Covid-19 infection, wearing a mask, keeping hands clean, and keeping a safe distance from others. The ministry also advised Cambodians to choose safe ways to travel over the holiday weekend, thereby minimizing the spread of disease while avoiding traffic accidents.

Venerable Mok Putika, the abbot of Kampong Kor monastery in the Kampong Kor commune of Kratie province, said he’s also happy to see the renewed Khmer New Year celebrations.

“I am happy that the prime minister opened publicly for citizens to celebrate the Khmer New Year, especially when close and distant relatives can get together,” Putika said. “This announcement lets people rejoice in accordance with our Khmer traditions.”

He told CamboJA that, at his temple, monks and lay people generally prepare decorations for Sangkran and Khmer New Year 20 days before the holiday begins. Putika said he’d noticed that people were very happy to see monks preparing decorations with traditional Khmer components, with some donating or volunteering their time to help.

University students dance at their school to celebrate Khmer New Year in the week before the festival’s official start. Photo taken April 8, 2022. CamboJA/Pring Samrang

Tourism Ministry spokesman Top Sopheak said the ministry had already confirmed there will be more tourists visiting destinations across the country during the holiday break.

Sopheak told CamboJA that, in general, each province is ready to receive and celebrate the Khmer New Year. Although there is no Angkor Sangkran in Siem Reap, there are traditional dances and games scheduled in districts across the country.

“Despite the status of Covid-19 in Cambodia, the government has controlled the situation well. Therefore, all tourists can go to all tourist destinations safely,” he said. “The important thing is not to forget to follow the guidelines of the Ministry of Health.”

“In addition to implementing health measures and tourism safety measures, we focus on keeping the number of people not overcrowded,” Sopheak added.

The Tourism Ministry has advised sub-national tourism offices along those lines, he said.

On Sunday, the Health Ministry announced 16 new cases of COVID-19 officially confirmed by PCR test, with 21 cases cured and zero new deaths. Up to now, Cambodia has officially recorded 135,963 cases of COVID-19 and a total death toll of 3,055 people while 132,639 cases have been recovered.

At his pagoda, the Venerable Putika has set the monks to work to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while following state guidelines.

“I have arranged for a group of monks to carry alcohol and masks to stand at each gate and distribute masks if lay people come to the pagoda without masks,” Puthika said, adding that his group will also have a series of announcements during the festival to raise awareness about COVID-19 prevention.

He added youth should avoid playing any prohibited games which will affect the national culture, and he has prepared many Khmer traditional games for his local people.

“The most popular Khmer games we [local people] plan to play are sack jumping, pot beating, powder blowing, bottle pumping and tug-of-war,” he said.

University students playing a traditional game to celebrate Khmer New Year, which officially begins start in mid-April. Photo taken April 8, 2022. CamboJA/Pring Samrang